Education at the Naval AcademyI read with interest the...


July 02, 1994

Education at the Naval Academy

I read with interest the June 16 Opinion * Commentary piece by Professor Morris Freedman. It is always reassuring that colleagues from other institutions are concerned about the academic program at the Naval Academy and take the time to raise questions and offer suggestions. Some additional information, however, may help to put his comments in perspective.

Professor Freedman points out that the academy places considerable emphasis on engineering, and concludes from this that the humanities, social sciences and science are neglected.

This impression is mistaken. In the core curriculum, which all midshipmen take, there are four humanities, two social science, four math and four science courses. In addition, all midshipmen select a major (from among 18 available), so that they may explore one academic field more deeply. Nearly a third of our midshipmen choose a major in the humanities or social sciences.

Professor Freedman's anecdote about the time devoted to American poets at the Air Force Academy may be illustrative of another time and another place, but does not illuminate educational practice at the Naval Academy.

The survey courses, which share the same limitations as those at civilian schools, introduce midshipmen to the great ideas and literature that have shaped the modern world.

In addition, elective courses provide the opportunity for more detailed study in areas of particular interest -- from Chaucer to the American dream, from Athenian democracy to American foreign policy, from comparative economic systems to macroeconomic theory, from international organizations to the American presidency.

These courses in the liberal disciplines are taught in small, intensive classroom settings -- generally there are no more than 22 midshipmen per section.

This allows for close student-faculty interaction that usually includes feedback on multiple essay assignments per semester.

Reliance on text-based discussion in class and written essays discourages the rote memorization and "skim learning" that Professor Freedman mentions.

Professor Freedman suggests that "occasionally faculty admit to lowering standards." I doubt that is the case. Even though more students graduate from high school less well prepared than they were even a few years ago, the Naval Academy is highly selective in those it admits.

There has been far less grade inflation at the academy than in most of academe -- that is, if you can believe the recent articles in the news magazines and, of course, "Doonesbury."

Professor Freedman's impressions of the Naval Academy seem to me not to reflect the realities of the education available to midshipmen.

I hope he will visit the academy; his colleagues here would enjoy meeting with him and sharing ideas and provide him with more current information about the curriculum and the educational process.

He would leave, I think, certain that learning "is not done by

rote," the humanities do not skim over "famous names" and that midshipmen, rather than "illiterate or innumerate," leave the academy with "a broadly based education."

Philip W. Warken


The writer is a professor of history and president of the Faculty Senate at the U.S. Naval Academy.

A City Teacher Responds to Dr. Walter Amprey

I'd like to thank Dr. Walter Amprey for his open letter of June 23.

A recent informal poll of my teaching colleagues in the city showed that the letter was widely read and discussed -- and that does not mean universally criticized.

On the contrary, the tone and content probably did a lot to mend fences, given the reaction to his initial letter a few weeks before.

It's incredibly refreshing to hear a superintendent so willing to be critical when criticism is due.

I, too, have found that public schools have lost the ''ability to transform the majority of our young people into successful human beings and knowledgeable citizens.'' Who, after observing the school system, wouldn't find it ''paralyzed by a dysfunctional organizational structure that strangles innovation and defies accountability''? The only thing new is that Dr. Amprey was willing to admit the obvious, and that's a welcome and positive sign.

Unsurprisingly, I also agree that ''blaming any one group, particularly teachers,'' would be inaccurate and unproductive.

We can acknowledge the many root causes of our poor performance that lie outside the direct control of the school system.

There are some societal factors that every school, every parent, must deal with.

A flawed and illusory value system, glorified violence, warped views of wealth and material gain, have all been delivered into the psyches of so many that every day some terrible assumptions about life have to be undone, or at least questioned, before anything in a textbook even makes sense.

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